Cicadas

The last several days there has been a cicada singing right outside our front door. The first two days, Daniel was complaining about it because it was so loud, but today he was okay with the cicada. However, after only a few minutes of singing, the cicada stopped singing.

Daniel: Hey! The cicada stopped singing. It must have gotten a girlfriend.

After a few minutes, the cicada started singing again.

Daniel: Aww! The female must have changed her mind!

When it comes to information about plants and animals and nature in general, that boy remembers everything.

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The Struggle With the Daemon

I recently finished reading The Struggle with the Daemon: Holderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche by Stefan Zweig. For someone on the spectrum who is himself a literary writer (or, at least, I try to be), this book very much felt like it ought to have been titled The Struggle with Autism, especially as each of the three artists’ sections felt like an aspect of my personality was being emphasized–albeit, much more intense versions of me (I’ve managed to avoid descending into a final state of insanity, and I’ve never felt suicidal–though it’s my understanding that the last is an all-too common feeling among autistics).

Holderlin would seem the hardest case to make among the three, except many of his feelings as described by Zweig seem my feelings as well. Getting caught up in an obsession, and feeling like the rest of the world is a terrible imposition on your work is a very autistic way of being in the world–at least, from my experience.

Kleist, on the other hand, just screamed “autism” from Kleist’s description. For one, Kleist wandered all over Europe, and autistics are known to be avid wanderers (which can be a major problem when the wanderer is a child). “He was reserved to excess, and kept everything locked up within himself. He did not express his passions either in looks or in spoken words” (158). Zweig says

he remained mute, not from dumbness or sloth, but from overpowering chastity of feeling; and this silence, this dull, brutalising, oppressive silence, which he would maintain for hours when in company, was his most salient characteristic–that and absence of mind, a confusion which obscured his clarity of intellect. When talking, he would suddenly break off and stare into vacancy (158)

He could not converse unconstrainedly in an exchange of the small talk of ordinary life. Convention and customary obligations were repugnant to him, so that many assumed there must be something “dour and sinister” in this unusual companion; while others were wounded by his harshness and cynicism and bluntness when, as happened now and then, pricked by his own silence, he threw of all constraints. (159)

“Those who did not know him intimately believed him cold and indifferent. His intimates, on the other hand, were afraid of the fires that consumed him” (160).

If you’re autistic, perhaps especially if you have Asperger’s, this may sound quite familiar to you. If you know someone with Asperger’s, this also may sound familiar to you. Zweig’s description of Kleist throughout the book only reinforce my original conclusion (based on the above quotes) that Kleist had Asperger’s.

I have already written about my belief that Nietzsche had autism, and Zweig’s description only confirmed my beliefs. However, there is something quite interesting that Zweig pointed out that sounded quite personally familiar–and I would be interested if my autistic readers have had the same experience.

What makes Nietzsche’s transformations so peculiar is that they seem retrogressive. If we take Goethe as the prototype of an organic nature in harmony with the forward march of the universe, we perceive that his development is symbolical of the various stages of life. in youth he was fiery and enthusiastic; as a man in his prime he was actively reflective; age brought him the utmost lucidity of mind. His mental rhythm corresponded in every point with the temperature of his blood. As with most young men, he began in chaos and ended his career in orderly fashion, as is seemly with the old. After going through a revolutionary period he turned conservative, after a phase of lyricism he became a man of science, after being prodigal of himself he learnt how to be reserved.

Nietzsche took an opposite course. Instead of aspiring to an ever more complete integration of his ego, he desired complete disintegration. As he advanced in years he became increasingly impatient, vehement, revolutionary, and chaotic. His outward aspect was in strident opposition of the customary evolution of a man. While his university companions were still delighting in the usual horseplay of undergraduates, Nietzsche, though but twenty-four years old, was already a professor, aspirant to the chair of philology at Basel, that famous seat of learning. At twenty-four, Nietzsche’s intimates were men of fifty and sixty years of age, sages such as Jakob Burckhardt and Ritschl, while his closest friend was the most celebrated artist of the day–Richard Wagner. (288-289)

Zweig goes on and on about the staid, scholarly Nietzsche, then notes that when he was thirty, he resigned from his position with a pension, went to live alone in Switzerland and northern Italy, and transformed himself into the writer of Zarathustra–a transformation that ended with Nietzsche’s loss of sanity. His life is the reverse of Goethe’s.

Now let me give a brief of my own life. In grade school, I wore dress slacks and button-down shirts. In high school, I started wearing jeans, but they were dress jeans. I went to college to major in recombinant gene technology, then attended graduate school in molecular biology. During grad school, I started wearing t-shirts and listening to contemporary rock (alternative music–I started in with the grunge scene with Nirvana’s In Utero, when I was around 22). It was around this time that I started reading Nietzsche, and I also started writing more fiction and poetry, and myself growing more and more chaotic.

I dropped out of grad school, had two massive anxiety attacks, started writing Hear the Screams of the Butterfly to deal with all of my emotional issues, and also took a year of undergrad English classes to get into a graduate program in Creative Writing. While there I was quite bohemian in my lifestyle. If there was a reversal, it was when I started my Ph.D. program in the humanities, where I started off doing creative writing, but ended up with a scholarly dissertation. After graduating, I met my future wife, got married, had three children, and have lived the past decade wasting my scholarly and writing talents in looking for gainful employment. I’ve also grown more radical in my politics, and I think more daring in my art.

Now, do not get me wrong. I would trade nothing for my wife and children. In that I’m a happy Goethe, so to speak. However, an inability to go “full Goethe” in the sense of his life development, has meant considerable employment difficulties. At the same time, I have been fortunate in also not going “full Holderlin/Kleist/Nietzsche” either. I’m instead in an uncomfortable truce, neither giving in to my obsessions nor being able to live a “normal” life.

The scientist I was in college became the artist became the artist and interdisciplinary scholar–became more and more interdisciplinary, unspecialized, going in the opposite direction of most people. I’ve grown less conservative over time, less satisfied with life, more radical. That is, from order to chaos. Nietzsche is a model for my own changes, though I certainly had no intention to follow that model–it just seems a natural development. Yet, I struggle against that development, and thus (mostly) keep it under control. The forces of order and the forces of chaos are always in a constant struggle within me. I continue to alternate between art and scholarship. If anything, my family is what keeps the struggle just barely on the side of order.

What Is Executive Functioning?

You have probably read somewhere that one of the main features of autism is weak executive functioning. But how many of you really understand what executive functioning actually is? And how does it explain some of the features of autism?

The purpose of the executive functioning of the brain is to prevent all thoughts from coming to the surface and being expressed. As a result, a great many of your thoughts–perhaps most of your thoughts, never come to consciousness. Others sort of exist on the periphery, but never get expressed or said. Your executive function allows you to be social precisely to the degree that it censors you even before the thoughts are made conscious.

You can think of “thoughts” in the following ways: there are

  1. Thoughts you don’t have
  2. Thoughts you have but are censored by the executive functioning before they come to conscious awareness
  3. Thoughts you have but censor consciously
  4. Thoughts you say

If you are wondering what the difference is between 1. and 2., congratulations, you’re not autistic! The average person who doesn’t, say, think about cheating on his wife may either be experiencing 1. or 2., but will never know it. If an autistic man doesn’t think about cheating on his wife, it’s because he’s actually not having thoughts about cheating on his wife. It’s 1. or nothing. The weak executive functioning means unwanted thoughts will arise and intrude on one’s thoughts. So those of us on the spectrum who never think about cheating on our wives sleep with a clear conscience.

Now, the problem with having a weak executive function isn’t so much that you aren’t actively suppressing much if anything at all in your unconscious; no, the problem is that your head is full of a constant stream of thoughts, and with a weak censor, you’re bound to say more than a few of them. Many of us learn to run thoughts by ourselves before we speak, but that presupposes we aren’t being pressured to say something right now. If we’re delayed in speaking, it’s because we’re making sure what we plan to say is appropriate. Put us under any sort of pressure, make us uncomfortable, and you’re bound to hear what we really think. And that, of course, can be . . . awkward!

If there is anything good about a weak executive function, it’s that such “leakiness” tends to lead to rather creative thoughts. When writing a poem, play, or prose fiction, having a weak censor is actually a boon. All kinds of crazy thoughts come to mind, and many of them are quite interesting from an artistic perspective—or from the perspective of technological innovation. All those crazy thoughts are thoughts everyone is having—but only those on the spectrum aren’t censoring the overwhelming majority of them. If you wonder why I claimed autistics may be among the most creative, now you know why.

 

The Importance of Autism in the Human Population

It is not uncommon to think that everyone is, essentially, the same. Certainly there don’t seem to be any significant genetic differences among different groups, particularly those genes involving the brain. But what if there are differences not among different racial/ethnic/cultural groups but, rather, within the human species as a whole?

About 84% of the genes are expressed in the brain. Given that humans have 20,000 genes, that means about 16,800 genes are expressed in the brain.

We should not be surprised, then, if we were to find more than a bit of variation among human brains.

We should expect to see variation in degrees of creativity vs. copying, on liberalism vs. conservatism, on selfish behavior vs. altruism, introversion vs. extroversion, leadership vs. following, variations in thinking styles, degrees of mental energy, I.Q. and flexibility of I.Q., and of course any of a variety of learning and mental disabilities. These last are of course often disabilities based on a certain accepted mean of learning and/or behavior.

I have noted in some previous posts, linked above, that each of these consists of a spectrum of behaviors, which can be placed in a 20-60-20 grouping of the two extremes and a varying middle. I suspect that the same is true of the autism spectrum as well. The numbers don’t seem at first to support this, but I suspect that the number of people with Asperger’s is grossly underestimated and that ADD/ADHD is properly on the spectrum, such that the true spectrum looks like this:

ADD/ADHD—Asperger’s—autism

Indeed, recent research has found a genetic link among major depression, bipolar disorder, autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD. About 11% of the population has been diagnosed with ADHD, and while only about 0.2% of the population has been diagnosed with Asperger’s (the distinction of which has been lost by being folded into autism), I strongly suspect it’s more. Many we would just call “introverted” are probably on the spectrum and specifically have Asperger’s. Many upon my telling them I have Asperger’s insisted that, no, I was just very introverted. But as anyone on the spectrum will tell you, much of our “introversion” comes from a combination of complete mental exhaustion from having to negotiate a social environment that doesn’t make much sense to us, and our not understanding how to be social, rather than a desire not to be social.

In addition to the above research, there are a number of other studies that find genetic and structural similarities between autism and schizophrenia. Indeed, autism was once considered to be a form of childhood schizophrenia. It may be that the doctors who thought that were on to something. While there do seem to be significant-enough differences between schizophrenia and autism to make the distinction worthwhile, they may be close-enough related to consider them together–at least for the purposes of this essay.

If we take these things into consideration, we have an expanded autism spectrum that includes something like 20% of the population. If that is the case, what we have here is not really a disorder, but a natural variation that contributes to social complexity and dynamics. At the other end, constituting another 20% of the population, would then be what we could consider solipsistic thinkers, who are in many ways truly opposite of autistic, as I discuss here.

Also, one may note that there are a lot of overlaps in categories. Many introverts are on the autism spectrum, and vice versa (many with ADHD may be considered extroverts because of their hyperactivity, so the correlation, in my expanded definition of autism, won’t be perfect with introversion); many on the spectrum are creative and non-conformists. (It is notable that people on the spectrum, while being non-conformists, also dislike a great deal of change, while the more conformist neurotypicals are more capable of change; this tension also likely contributes to social dynamics in interesting ways that should be investigated.) Variations in thinking styles also maps well onto the solipsistic to autism spectrum.

Variations in brain structure, then, is going to be quite common. Given the number of genes involved in the brain, what should be most surprising is that so much is common among humans. This is in no small part because various streams tend to converge into the same general pathways (as described by constructal theory). This is why there can be a variety of causes of autism, with there being similarities among those who have autism (even with variations in degrees of expression). For there to be complex human societies, it would be necessary to have a variety of ways of thinking or even a variety of kinds of minds so that our societies are neither too stagnant nor too changeable. The most stable societies will be those that both honor tradition and are open to change, that change on the margins rather than abruptly.

Even though we have had literally millennia of species experience with the presence of such variation, we still nevertheless see a great deal of prejudice and discrimination against those who have variations in their thinking. This seems especially true in the postmodern period, where we have developed institutions whose job it is to separate out anyone who has a difference in the way they think, process information, etc. This institutional discrimination is very widespread today, to such a degree that you almost cannot get a job unless you are solidly in the 80% solipsistic-neurotypical range. Businesses quite often, if not almost always, actively discriminate against anyone on the autism spectrum, which is why so many on the spectrum are unemployed.

This discrimination against people who think differently comes from more recent egalitarian attitudes which insist that everyone is/must be identical. Given that these variations in mind/thinking cut across race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexual orientation, one can actively discriminate against mental variation even while insisting on acceptance of other categories. Worse, because these mental differences are real and are a consequence of structural differences, insistence that all children are the same and learn the same results in the development of the idea of learning disabilities and of behavioral problems.

The politically correct change of this to “learning differences” has not resulted in any real change in attitude toward those differences as being bad. And differences in processing and interacting with the world are treated as behavioral problems to be solved. But the fact of the matter is that people on the spectrum cannot and should not be expected to behave like neurotypical people, because the are literally structured differently. This isn’t a matter of something superficial like culture, which can be written on any individual born into that culture, regardless of race, etc.; no, this is something deep and fundamental that cannot be so readily changed.

And even if the changes can be made–typically, forced–they always feel artificial to the person. It’s much like insisting that gays can just ignore their preferences and act heterosexual; it can be done, but it will never feel quite right, and it will likely make the person feel anxious and depressed. Perhaps not coincidentally, anxiety and depression are typically part of autism.

Our societies have been formed by the majority of those not on the autism spectrum. There are obvious reasons for that–not the least of which being that those people make up 80% of the population. As a result, it is not entirely unreasonable to insist that we on the spectrum conform to them and not vice versa. Of course, this seems easy enough to a group of people for whom conformity is natural. But what they need to understand, what everyone needs to understand, is that it’s not easy for us.

More, by preventing us from being ourselves–at least on occasion–I suspect that our societies are losing out on a great deal that we could and would otherwise contribute to society. Free to be ourselves, with less anxiety and depression, we may feel more up to innovating and creating and thus contributing to society in the many ways we have in the past. That’s all we ask: to be allowed to be ourselves, to be allowed to contribute, to be allowed our humanity.

Prodigies and Autism

Although not all autistics–or even a majority of autistics–are prodigies, for a long time people have noticed that there is an extremely strong correlation between the two. Thus, it is not in the least bit surprising to me that a connection has been found between autism and child prodigies. It’s not surprising to me because we already know about the “idiot savant,” who as we now know are/were almost all people with autism. The thing that is notable in this study is, of course, that child prodigies seem to have all the advantages of autism with none (or few) of the deficits.

Of particular note is a suggestion for how to treat your autistic child:

When parents of prodigies realize that their child has an extraordinary talent in art or math or astronomy, they understandably try to nurture that talent, even if it seems to border on obsession.

Children with autism also often have obsessions with particular subjects or talents. But because of their troubles communicating and showing emotions, parents often don’t let them follow these obsessions.

Ruthsatz has uncovered a few instances, however, where parents have let their children with autism pursue their passions.

“Instead of focusing entirely on trying to teach the children to speak or to make eye contact, the parents let their child do the thing they love to do, whatever that is,” she said.

“In some cases, the children get excited about their particular talent, they get good at it, and they want to communicate about it. The speech and communication and social skills come along with their growing ability.”

This is treating children with autism as if they were prodigies by focusing on their strengths and ignoring the deficits, she said. In some cases, those deficits become less pronounced as they follow their talents.

While (as noted in the article) this may not work with every autistic child, I would note that absolutely no harm could possibly come from it, it’s almost certainly almost nothing but helpful to a child to allow him/her to be happy (as following their passions makes them), and this might not be all that bad a suggestion for pretty much any child.